Saturday, November 24, 2012


Winter has finally arrived. 

Two days ago, I sat on the porch of the cabin barefooted writing; today the temperature has dropped 20 full degrees and keeps dropping. Snow covers everything. It is a blustery, frigid cold, with the kind of wind that knocks down trees. Yesterday, the dogs and I almost turned right onto a trail, but some part of me decided against it. As we drove past, a large part of a tree crashed down loudly onto the forest floor. It sounded like a gunshot as it bounced indifferently off the very trail we narrowly decided against going down.

Days seem to slip away from me. A trip to town for straw and then strawing dog houses and keeping a fire going in the wood stove encompassed most of today.  

I think some primitive part of my brain kicks in up here. I seem to think about two things often: warmth and food. Things like showering and how I present myself to the outside world take a backseat to simple survival. Chopping firewood, making and keeping fires going, chopping meat, strawing houses, hunkering down...

Thursday, we celebrated Thanksgiving with Mike and Cathy, who own the cabin I am renting. This afternoon, neighbors Jim and Denise invited me for Thanksgiving dinner. Their cabin is simple and functional, with a steep slanted roof for snow to easily slide from. It is warm, with one main room and a wood stove. Like most of the cabins here, the wood stove is the central focal point in the room. 

I am continually impressed with the frugality and inventive functionality of mushers’ homes. Function precedes aesthetics. Here, Gortex bibs and snow clothes hang from PVC piping dangling from the open beam ceiling, along side of pictures of the star athletes (the dogs) in racing action. Next to a coffee pot (a mushing necessity), a clothesline might be draped across the room with dog booties or wet gloves pinned up to dry.

I’ve eaten meals and slept in quite a few homes of people who’ve opened their doors to me having not known me an hour previously. During training and race season, their humble homes turn into dens full of tired mushers snoozing haphazardly in random places, like bears content during a winter’s nap.

There is lots of cabin hopping going on since winter’s arrival. The cabins of several key mushers in the area are stopping points in an elaborate system of trails linking this cabin to the next. I suppose this is how people survive these long winters.

Last evening Michael and I traversed through the wild, windy frigid night along back roads with the intent of heading to the McMillan tavern popular among the handlers at the Stielstra’s – The Shanty. We stopped quickly at Al Hardman’s cabin to see if aspiring musher, Danny Glen and her husband Bill wanted to join us for drinks. A few beers and good conversation found two hours gone. It seemed much cozier to stay in Al’s cabin around the wood stove than head back out to The Shanty.

I think winter is here to stay. We are all blanketed in a cover of white, not only from the snow, but also the gray-white expanse that is the U.P. sky. The sun is replaced by gracious hospitality of those who live here.

White ground, white sky...

I am thankful for my mushing family – for friends who I feel more akin to than most of my own family. I am thankful for the hospitality of those who live here and only hope I can return their kindness some way.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Brake: A device for slowing or stopping motion, as of a vehicle, especially by contact friction. 2. Something that slows or stops action. v. braked, brak·ing, brakes.

It's difficult to believe as I sit in the cabin typing that a winter storm is coming. The days have been mild and spring-like with unseasonably warm temperatures - around mid-50s most days this week.

The dogs and I have resorted to running only at night under the cooling shroud of darkness because of the warmth. This can make for quite an adventure without a means of stopping.

Yes, it's true: I have been training all this fall without much of a brake to speak of on my four wheeler.

Some commands are more concrete to sled dogs. Like, for example, gee. Two nights ago, about five miles into our run in the quiet night, we came to an intersection in the trail. I called "Gee," and Yeti immediately perked up his head and turned sharply right down the connecting trail. No problem.

Other commands are more ... fluid in meaning to sled dogs. Like, for example, whoa.

Behind every sled dog is perhaps hundreds of years of breeding churning them forward. Their momentum is not to stop; their very DNA says go! Stopping is, therefore, counter-intuitive to their core.

Mushers in the area joke about my braking system. I carry a large piece of triangular firewood on my four wheeler and throw it under the front tire when we stop. Occasionally my "brake" flies out of the basket on the front of my four wheeler.

My "brake"

I bought new pads for my four wheeler, but before I left Ohio, found out that the drum was worn down so the new pads didn't even make a difference in stopping. And by that time, I didn't have time to do full repairs on the four wheeler. So I have winged it. Good practice for a sled, right?

During a 15 mile training run the other night, I stopped on a hill to water the dogs. It was still humid and warm - about 42 degrees - and when it's that warm, I carry water and stop along the trail to cool the dogs down with a fresh drink. Like clockwork, I chucked the "brake" under my front wheel which was also turned sharply to the left. I walked up the line of 10 dogs, patting heads and giving praise for a job well done, and threw the bowls down to begin watering, starting with my leaders.

Ruffian is my most intense dog, and young leader-in-training, Dirk, is close behind her.

By the time I set the bowls down in front of my wheel dogs, Ruffian and Dirk decided they were ready to go. They began hammering in their harnesses and barking intensely.

Before I knew what had happened, they pulled the quad over the "brake" and were hauling it up hill. Instinctively, I grabbed the gangline and yelled "whoa!" several times. I even called out Ruffian's name and told her "no!" sharply.

To no avail.

Don't worry. This story has a happy (but painful) ending. I ended up stopping the four wheeler ... with my body. I have a large, black painful welted bruise on my right hip to show for it. But I managed to hop on the seat, aggravated, but no worse for the wear.

my right hip. Ouch!

I saw Bob Shaw today. He stopped at the end of the driveway and asked how my adventures are going. I told him this little story.

He chuckled and said, "always an adventure with you!"

Yup. Always an adventure with these crazy dogs!

Monday, November 19, 2012

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ― Rollo May

Here’s what I’ve learned about myself as a writer and artist: my creative energies open up when I am in solitude. Perhaps this is why, whenever I have been in the U.P., my writing flows so easily.

Sometimes the silence here is almost deafening. It wakes me in the night; it reverberates inside my heart, shaking loose its secrets. The silence is a hum that bounces off my soul and allows me to better hear simple truths. My simple truths. 

There is never a time when I feel the fullness of solitude as when we run at night. Sometimes the only thing the U.P. has to offer is solitude and stillness.

As the dogs and I trekked through the woods last night, I stopped to water them and snapped this picture. Right after, I walked back down the line of dogs, 10 of them, all wagging and barking to go. I shut the engine of my four wheeler off and tried to imagine we were on snow and the team was hooked to my sled. 

Ruffian, my intense white leader, barked and called everyone to attention.

"Ready?" I asked, and Ruffian barked again in response.

"I was born ready!" she seemed to say.

The wind blew through the white pines and the dogs looked like dancing horses - all loping in perfect harmony. As we dipped down on the trail, the air seemed to cool and the dogs picked up their already swift pace, moving like a well-oiled machine. We reached 15 miles per hour on the cold stretch, winding in between the birch and spruce and aspen.

ghosts in the woods

Some don't like running at night, but I do. The darkness seems to magnify the solitude. I never feel afraid or alone when I'm out with a team in the night. Solitude is a place I visit often.

Tonight, I walked out of the tiny cabin under the stars. The moon was a hazy sliver in the sky. I looked up and thanked God for this opportunity - for helping me be true to myself. I am no longer living a lie.

Some may not like the words I have to say or the truths I have to speak, but I have spoken the hardest truths in the last six months, and I will always honor myself and those truths now.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Break out the blaze orange

Cathy hit a yearling deer on her way home from work last week. As I walked back to the cabin from feeding my dogs, I stopped to look at the young buck. Mike had already gutted it and hung it in a tree outside his wood shop. Only hours before, it was likely haphazardly grazing with its herd. I touched its soft fur, its eyes already clouded over with death. The button buds of antlers had just begun to sprout.

The deer are on the move. Opening day of rifle hunting is tomorrow, and most mushers steer clear of the woods and take a few days off out of respect for hunters. The dogs and I have run three days in a row this week so we could sit out the next few.

The team is looking great! There are 10 dogs in training: six boys and four girls. The entire pack is fairly young, with four yearlings, two 2-year-olds, two 4-year olds and two 5-year olds. Four members of the team were on the Midnight Run team from last season. Having that many young dogs (and un-neutered boys) in training has given some much-needed umph to the team. I am hopeful that we place at least mid-pack this season.

It's been fun working with the yearlings and watching them blossom. Primarily, the boys from the Reggae Litter (July 2011, Tak x Yeti) are looking phenomenal, with the same smooth, straight gait as their father. Two of them - Tosh and Wailer - have had a chance to lead and are proving to follow in their dad's paw prints. And up-and-coming star, Dirk, has led all three runs this week! So, with three main leaders and three leaders-in-training...I'm feeling pretty good about our ability to navigate. Can't have too many leaders!

Yearling, Dirk (right), next to Big Brown during a training run this past weekend
We were greeted with two inches of lovely white stuff two days ago, which caused the dogs to be extra happy and speedy. 



Can't wait until we can actually switch to sleds! Hopefully soon!

But for now, the dogs and I are going to enjoy some time off! 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

“It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance . . . I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” – Annie Dillard

I do some of my best thinking while making necklines. 

Some have been critical of my decision to take this sabbatical in the woods. They
ask when I’m going to stop “hiding out in Michigan,” or offer (mostly unsolicited) advice and suggest gently that I consider if I am “running away.”

What they don’t know is that I have been running away from myself for the last ten years, searching for peace outside of myself: through a marriage that didn’t work, through a job that didn’t last, through pretending to be something I am not.

Here in this cabin, I am no longer “hiding out.” I am authentic.  I am more completely and contentedly my self here than anywhere. I have little, and yet, I feel more grateful and satisfied with my life than I ever did when I was climbing some proverbial corporate ladder. When you strip away the clutter, gluttony and overabundance of life in America in 2012, you see the beauty and grace in simplicity. The less I have, the more complete I feel.

But, what I miss the most – what hurts the most – is the space between my two girls and me.
Last night, while weaving the black six millimeter poly rope into the small “O” shaped tethers that will attach to 10 of my best friend’s collars on the gangline, I thought about my children. My human children.

In June of 1999, I spent most of my days (and nights, it seems) walking the floors of my apartment on the backside of the Teton Range in Victor, Idaho with an intolerant, wailing infant Sophie.  I sometimes held her to my breast for hours just to have some quiet from her incessant crying. 

My Sophie Queen is now 13 1/2 and has blossomed overnight into a beautiful young woman who I am proud of. She is funny, sensible, smart and beautiful. 

Sophie's summer portrait, 2012
In May of 2004, Elise was born,  and she's always been my spunky, fiery little strawberry blond. My girls are totally different, but both beautiful and make me proud.

Elise's fall portrait 2012

I am a lot of things, including a mother. Why is it sometimes the things we are conflict with one another?
Sometimes it is necessary to heal ourselves before we can be good parents, role models, and providers.

I pray every night that God keeps my girls safe and happy while I am away. I do not take this time lightly. I am using it to get strong, realign my soul with my life, and come clean from ten years of running. Stopping here in this cabin in the woods, I am cracked open by God’s grace, and have come clean from pretense.

Those who criticize or judge I have no use for. Be my friend, or be nothing at all.

*                                    *                                    *                                    *                        *

Today is ridiculously warm. The sun emerged from its nest of clouds and warmed us up to 62 whopping degrees. It’s been a lazy Sunday. I spent time sitting out in the dog yard beside each dog singing to and loving on them and relaxing in the mild temperatures. 

Nova play bowing with me

We did a hard, slow run on Friday and the dogs felt it the next day. Tomorrow we're back on the trail. 

With love from the U.P. - I miss my girls! Love you Sophie and Elise! 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

In a space as small as this, function dictates form.

I have no cupboards, but I have an oven which has become a damned good storage space. I have no closet, but these magnificent, huge beams cross the entire width of the cabin. Some rope tired between two beams, and voila! Instant closet!

my "closet"

my bed, and the wood stove

Function dictates form: antlers make a great hat rack
Today, I drove to Manistique for a free chest freezer for the 50 pound blocks of meat I received recently for the dogs. Chunks of meat are chopped off with an axe and thawed in buckets...and once again, function dictates form: the buckets go in the shower.

Yes, buckets of beef thaw in my shower.

A word about the showering process.

The small six gallon water heater

It is far easier to live modestly in this small cabin that most would likely think. Even with a six gallon water heater, I've not once missed the large farm house I left in Ohio. I did worry about showering with my long crazy curly hair though. But it's been simple.

Step 1. Heat the cabin well with a toasty fire in the wood stove. This is important :)

Step 2. Get naked

Step 3. Turn the water on. I already know the exact location on the knobs for the perfect temperature quickly. Get everything - including my long crazy hair - wet

Step 4. Turn the water off. lather up the crazy hair

Step 5. Turn water on and rinse the crazy hair. Conditioner.

Step 6. Turn water off. Lather up everything else.

Step 7. Turn water back on and rinse everything off.

Sometimes I stand there for a few minutes of bliss under the hot water that remains. But mostly, I am thankful every day for a hot shower and to be clean, and thankful for a lesson in simplicity.

Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

My crazy 10-dog team stopped for water on a training run

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Falling in love...on election day

I have fallen in love with birch trees. 

While trekking down the trail this morning with the dogs, I thought of birch trees. 

So, after running the dogs, while the rest of the country squabbled over politics and stood in long voting lines, I grabbed my camera, hopped on the four wheeler and drove deep into the woods.

The sky was a whitish-grey, overcast and cold, seconds away from snowing all day. I drove down to what I call “Pretty Pond” on the far side of the “woods loop” of our training run route.  When I turned the four wheeler off, the silence filled my heart like a drum. I walked down an embankment blanketed with pine needles to the edge of Pretty Pond.

Freeze up has begun.

The aqua-bluish-green water that fills Pretty Pond has begun to slow down, grown dense, hushed by the silence of winter’s approach. A thin skin of ice covers the surface of the pond; random shards jet out along the top. Underneath, all is still. Lilly pads and foliage are locked in ice; I look for signs of life under the water’s surface, but can see none aside from the plants. Hoof prints dot the edge of the water, some thirsty ungulate – a deer – pawed at the surface of the pond for a drink in vain. 

As I hiked away from the frozen pond, I spotted a long thin felled birch. I thought it would be perfect for a curtain rod in the rustic little cabin. I rode back to the cabin with it, like some weird jockey riding with an earthy javelin.  

So many textures in the woods today. 

I'd much rather be here than in the voting booths. But thank God we live in a country where we can exercise our rights and express our opinions through democracy! I am thankful for that...and the woods!


Monday, November 5, 2012

Coyote and Bob Shaw

We are plunged into darkness, as if these cloudy, overcast days weren’t dark enough. Daylight savings time. Whose brilliant idea was that? Random, very faint snowflakes fall haphazardly from the sky. It would be easy to miss them, they’re so tiny.

Last night, I woke at exactly 2 a.m. to the sound of coyote frolicking very near the cabin. Their excited yips and barks were loud and made me think of laughter. I smiled to myself, threw another log in the wood stove, and snuggled back into my fleece sheets.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard my dog yard explode. Miles is the alarmist. On the edge of the beginning of the dog yard, nothing gets by his keen ears and he is quick to bark to warn the others of any activity. First, I heard Miles, then all the dogs began barking. There are several types of barks, and this was definitely a hackles-raised kind of bark. One of my females is in standing heat right now, and I worried that Mr. Coyote might try to breed her. I was just about to hop into my truck with a headlamp and a leash and go retrieve the female in heat, when as suddenly as it began, the barking stopped.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with Bob and Jan Shaw. Bob never tires of teasing me. He is jovial, with a pot belly and a fuzzy gray beard that gives him a Santa look that is endearing. His blue eyes sparkle with mirth. He began showing me pictures his trail cam had taken from his hunting cache, mostly funny stills of portly raccoons in mid-heist, and black bears.

One series of photos left a lasting impression, however. Bob had found a large roadkill deer and dragged it back into the woods in the last month to get it off the main road. He set the trail camera on the carcass, and the slideshow that followed was an eerie illustration of how handy nature cleans up after herself. A flock of turkey vultures descended on the carcass, stupidly unaware that they were being filmed in their decadent feast. One large bird seemed to look right into the camera, as if to pose, its large red face blank and expressionless.

A flock of raven then appeared. Within just two or three frames, the raven had skillfully peeled back the hide of the carcass, exposing the deer’s large rib cage ominously.

The next frame showed a large, beautiful coyote standing at attention next to the carcass. Its fluffy mane and strong stature made it look regal. In several frames, Coyote appeared startled, cautious – perhaps he’d heard the “click” of the trail cam going off. The temptation of the carcass was too much, and soon, he was gorging himself: first sharp canine teeth visibly tearing into a hind leg, then diving into the belly of the deer.

The last clip from the deer carcass series made the hair rise on the back of my neck. Throughout probably 20 slides, the deer was shown in various stages of decomposition. But, quite suddenly, on the last slide, the entire deer carcass disappeared. There was no evidence that the carcass had ever been there; not a trace remained, only the backdrop of conifers on a floor of pine needles and orange leaves that had once cradled the deer's lifeless body.

Nature is indifferent. She does what she does – whether it is hurricanes or carrion – apathetically and matter-of-factly.  She cares not. And we animals do what we must to survive. Even if it means carrying off whole carcasses to feed our families.

Anyone who feels that nature intently focuses on us, stalks us, or even cares one way or the other about us humans is a fool.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Updates from the north woods: "Weather changes moods" - Kurt Cobain

The dogs and I have been here nine days as of this posting, and have begun to settle into a rhythm. I haven’t seen a sunny day since I left Ohio, though, and this morning I woke with a heavy heart partially because of the constant rain, I think. It’s common for the skies to be cloudy this time of year in the Upper Peninsula, but this rain and lack of sunlight is kinda getting to me. 

The dogs LOVE the overcast cloudy skies, though. 

Tosh, quite comfortable under the cloudy U.P. skies
Everyone looks great, and they're in their element on these trails. Tosh has been showing good focus on our runs, and with lots of leaders in his background, I decided to put him up front for a mile of our 10 mile run yesterday. He was next to his dad for guidance and did great!

Fifteen month old, Tosh (white) lead for a bit yesterday with his dad next to him

Note worthy:

1. I've gotten good at mastering the art of showering with a six gallon hot water tank. I am thankful to have a shower at all, because at first, I didn't. I received a call from Mike Murphy, purveyor of the small cabin I am living in for the season shortly before I left Ohio saying that the hot water tank in the cabin was kaput. Thankfully, my friend Michael Betz, who was on his way down state from St. Paul, picked up a small hot water tank from craigslist and stopped over on his way down to help mushers and friends, Jerry and Ali Papke for the season. It's really not as bad as I thought it would be showering with such a small capacity of water, and makes me realize just how much water we use and waste every day of our lives in "normal" society.

2. I've also gotten good at the art of managing a fire in a small wood stove in a way that I don’t roast myself out. This was far more challenging than learning to shower with a small amount of water. The first few nights, I created (inadvertently) a veritable sauna in the little cabin. With all of the cold rain, warmth was a welcome relief...but I had to eventually open the window to breathe. I've gotten better at it now, though.

3. Those who know me know I have long been a vegetarian. Until I come up to the U.P. I'm not sure what has happened to me, but I have turned into a genuine meat eating machine like the dogs! Something about being outside working in the cold makes me crave meat. Gracie, my little house dog, has gotten really good at sniffing out the beef and begging. 

Gracie says "Where's the beef!?"
Today the dogs had a day off from running. We woke up to a beautiful dusting of snow that made it feel like winter. Tomorrow, we're back on the trail. 

As always,

....from da U.P. :)